Puerto Rico moves to cancel Whitefish power contract after uproar

: A pickup truck from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings is parked as workers (not pictured) help fix the island's power grid, damaged during Hurricane Maria in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico October 25, 2017.

By Ginger Gibson and David Gaffen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s government power company said on Sunday it will cancel a $300 million contract with a tiny Montana company to restore power to the storm-hit U.S. territory after an uproar over the deal.

The contract between Whitefish Energy Holdings and Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility came under fire after it was revealed last week that the terms were obtained without a competitive public bidding process. Residents, local officials and U.S. federal authorities all criticized the arrangement.

The cancellation could further complicate Puerto Rico’s most pressing challenge from the territory’s worst storm in 80 years – restoring power to its 3.4 million residents. Nearly six weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, only about a quarter of homes and businesses have power, and the utility has set a goal of having 95 percent of power back by the middle of December.

Several other utilities have been involved in recovery efforts, but Whitefish said they had more than 350 people on the island. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) Director Ricardo Ramos said that he had to consider the “delay risk” of agreeing to cancel the contract. The territory has reached out to officials in Florida and New York, which have already sent people to Puerto Rico, to send more crews in the event that Whitefish departs.

Whitefish said in a statement it was “disappointed” in the decision, adding that it will “only delay what the people of Puerto Rico want and deserve – to have the power restored quickly in the same manner their fellow citizens on the mainland experience after a natural disaster.”

Earlier on Sunday, Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló had called for the contract with Whitefish to be canceled, and PREPA’s Ramos said he had accepted the governor’s recommendation.

“Following the information that has emerged, and with the goal of protecting public interest, as governor I am asking government and energy authorities to immediately activate the clause to cancel the contract to Whitefish Energy,” Rossello said in a statement.

Ramos, in a press conference Sunday, noted that the initial enthusiasm from residents over Whitefish employees coming to the island had shifted in the last several days after media reported the details of the contract.

“As soon as this whole issue was interpreted by the tabloids that PREPA has given away $300 million to a company with little experience…if you read that, and you have no light and no water that perception changes abruptly to the extent that the last four days they’ve been throwing stones and bottles” at workers, Ramos said.

Ramos said contract terms with Whitefish meant that the cancellation would become effective 30 days from notice and, signaling potential intricacies, explained that there were “a lot of logistics involved. I believe they have people on the way here.”

“The contract is not canceled as of yet. I am writing today a letter to the board of directors of PREPA asking for a resolution that will allow me to cancel the contract,” Ramos said.

Whitefish, which has a full-time staff of two, said it would complete any work that PREPA wanted it to, and noted their initial efforts “exceeded all other efforts by other parties.”

They said they completed work on two major transmission lines that crossed the island’s mountainous interior, and that PREPA’s decision to contact them “only sped up the repairs.”

Criticism increased after a copy of the contract with PREPA surfaced online on Thursday night and raised more questions, particularly over language blocking oversight of costs and profits.

Ramos noted that the federal contracting process is a long one, and that PREPA “could not wait.”

Workers from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings help fix the island's power grid, damaged during Hurricane Maria in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico October 25, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Workers from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings help fix the island’s power grid, damaged during Hurricane Maria in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

APPEAL TO NEW YORK, FLORIDA

Efforts to restore power have been bumpy. It took more than a week for a damage assessment to be completed, and PREPA did not immediately ask for what is known as “mutual aid,” whereupon utilities send workers in droves to restore power to hard-hit areas.

Residents have been forced to rely on diesel generators and most of the island remained in darkness.

Eventually, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was put in charge of power restoration. Rosselló said he had reached out to Florida and New York in part because of a delay in the arrival of brigades from the Army Corps.

Speaking to CNN, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he could send hundreds of work crews to Puerto Rico to assist with the repair work. Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office said he and Rossello “have talked frequently regarding Hurricane Maria recovery. Governor Scott is proud to offer any guidance, advice and assistance they may need.”

PREPA declared bankruptcy in July. It has a $9 billion debt load caused by years of unsuccessful rate collection efforts, particularly from municipal governments and state agencies, and a lack of investment in equipment and maintenance.

The Puerto Rican government is bracing for the possibility that Whitefish would sue for breach of contract if the cancellation is approved, according to sources familiar with discussions. The government already paid Whitefish $8 million and does not expect the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse that sum, the sources said.

 

(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Dan Bases and Nick Brown; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Mary Milliken)

 

Turkey purges hundreds of civil servants in latest decrees

Turkey purges hundreds of civil servants in latest decrees

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey dismissed hundreds civil servants and boosted President Tayyip Erdogan’s powers over the MIT national intelligence agency in two decrees published on Friday, the latest under emergency rule imposed after last year’s attempted coup.

Turkey has sacked or suspended more than 150,000 officials in purges since the failed putsch, while sending to jail pending trial some 50,000 people including soldiers, police, civil servants.

The crackdown has targeted people whom authorities say they suspect of links to the network of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for the coup.

Under the latest decrees, published in the government’s Official Gazette, more than 900 civil servants from ministries, public institutions and the military were dismissed. Those sacked included more than 100 academic personnel.

According to the decrees, the president’s permission will be required for the head of the MIT national intelligence agency to be investigated or to act as a witness. The president will also chair the national intelligence coordination board.

The Ankara chief prosecutor’s office will have the authority to investigate members of parliament for alleged crimes committed before or after an election, according to one of the measures.

One of the decrees also ordered the closure of the pro-Kurdish news agency Dihaber and two newspapers, all based in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Since the coup, some 130 media outlets have been closed and around 150 journalists jailed.

Such measures have alarmed Turkey’s Western allies and rights groups, who say Erdogan has used the attempted coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent.

Some 250 people were killed in last year’s coup attempt, and the government has said the security measures are necessary because of the gravity of the threats facing Turkey. Gulen has condemned the coup attempt and denied involvement.

Under the decrees, Turkey will also recruit 32,000 staff for the police, along with 4,000 judges and prosecutors.

(Reporting by Ceyda Caglayan; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Robert Birsel and David Dolan)

Turkish opposition lawmaker appeals to European court over referendum

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they wait for his arrival at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) – A lawmaker from Turkey’s main opposition CHP said on Friday he had submitted an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights demanding the annulment of a referendum that granted President Tayyip Erdogan sweeping executive powers.

Musa Cam, a lawmaker for the Republican People’s Party (CHP)from the coastal city of Izmir, told Reuters he submitted an individual appeal independently from the one the party is expected to make to the European Court.

In his application, seen by Reuters, Cam said the decision by Turkey’s High Electoral Board (YSK) to allow unstamped ballots in the referendum had caused the outcome to be “illegitimate and not representative of the people’s will”.

Final results released by the YSK on Thursday showed 51.4 percent support for the “Yes” vote to approve the biggest changes to Turkey’s political system in its modern history.

The results, which matched the preliminary figures released in the hours after polling closed on April 16, were released despite calls by the CHP to delay a final announcement while they appealed the vote. The YSK and a Turkish court, the council of state, have rejected or declined to hear the CHP appeals.

Erdogan and the “Yes” camp have said appeals were an attempt to undermine the results of the vote, adding only the YSK had jurisdiction on the matter.

The package of 18 amendments passed in the referendum gives the president the authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency and issue decrees overseeing ministries without parliamentary approval.

With the changes, Erdogan will also immediately be eligible to resume membership of a political party.

Erdogan told Reuters on Tuesday that he would rejoin Turkey’s ruling AK Party once the full results came out, and a senior official said he would be named as a candidate to lead it at an extraordinary congress on May 21.

(This version of the article corrects surname of lawmaker)

(Reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Tuvan Gumrukcu)

Colorado wildfire burns 30,000 acres, destroys homes

Fires in Colorado and Texas.

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A wind-driven wildfire erupted on the eastern plains of Colorado on Monday, scorching 30,000 acres of grassland, prompting the temporary evacuation of a small farming town and destroying at least three homes, emergency officials said.

The fire erupted around midday east of the town of Sterling and quickly grew out of control as gale-force winds fanned the flames, said Marilee Johnson, spokeswoman for the Logan County Office of Emergency Management.

Mandatory evacuations were lifted for the town of Haxtun late in the afternoon but some 900 homes remain threatened and those residents have been warned to prepare to flee should shifting winds drive flames their way, she said.

The 30,000-acre fire was 50 percent contained, the Logan County Office of Emergency Management said in a statement.

No injuries have been reported but three homes and a fourth structure were burned to the ground. The cause of the fire was unknown.

Footage from a Denver television station showed rows of hay bales in the agricultural area consumed by flames. More than 70 firefighters from 13 agencies were battling the blaze, emergency managers said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued an air quality alert due to smoke and dust kicked up by the winds, warning residents to stay indoors.

“This is especially true for those with heart disease, respiratory illnesses, the very young and the elderly,” the health department said in a statement.

Interstate 76 was temporarily closed due to smoke and blowing dust but some county roads remained closed by nightfall, the state emergency operations center said.

Schools in the towns of Caliche, Haxtun and Fleming were evacuated as winds whipped up the grass fire in the afternoon, the state office of emergency management said in a statement posted on its website.

The National Weather Service issued high wind warnings or advisories for much of Colorado as a cold front blew across the state on Monday, with blowing snow making for hazardous driving conditions in the Colorado mountains.

“Expect an additional 3 to 5 inches of snow combined with west winds of 35 to 50 mph and gusts to 70 mph,” the weather service said in a statement.

High winds also buffeted the Denver metropolitan area, causing power outages to nearly 600 businesses and residences for a time on Monday, the utility company said on its online outage report.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

New Turkish cabinet reflects Erdogan’s growing power

Turkey's Minister of Energy Berat Albayrak delivers a speech during the inauguration ceremony of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline in Thessaloniki

By Gulsen Solaker and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s new prime minister vowed on Tuesday to start work immediately on forging the stronger presidency wanted by Tayyip Erdogan, and announced a cabinet that signaled policy continuity but left little doubt as to who was in charge.

Key members of the economic management team including Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, favored by foreign investors as a reformer, kept their posts in the new government; but around half of the names were reshuffled as Erdogan consolidated his 14-year hold on power.

Addressing parliament, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said he would seize a “historic opportunity” to change a constitution born of a 1980 army coup. That new basic law would reflect the fact that the president had for the first time been popularly elected, rather than chosen by parliament.

Erdogan won Turkey’s first presidential election in 2014 having stepped down from the prime minister’s post with the intention of imbuing a largely ceremonial presidency with strong powers akin to those of the U.S. and French heads of state.

Opponents fear creeping authoritarianism on the part of Erdogan, who remains by far the most popular politician, aided by a weak and divided opposition that lacks strong leadership.

The nationalist MHP opposition, whose support Erdogan may need to press through changes, said a presidential system would inevitably lead to despotism.

“We need to change the constitution so it matches the de facto situation,” Yildirim told a parliamentary meeting of the AK Party. “It’s the AK Party’s most important duty.”

Yildirim rejected suggestions that the president, by chairing a first cabinet meeting, was meddling in government affairs in violation of the current constitution.

His words reflected the confused nature of a system that, while parliamentary in name, is dominated by a single figure, far and away the most popular politician in the NATO country.

The lira firmed to 2.98 against the dollar after Yildirim announced the cabinet, from below 3.00 beforehand, reflecting investor relief that Simsek, and Finance Minister Naci Agbal, had retained their positions.

The two are advocates of structural reforms to boost Turkey’s labor productivity and household savings, which economists say are long overdue.

“Logic prevails – why would Erdogan not keep Simsek, so as to keep markets and investors on side for the time-being,” said Nomura strategist Timothy Ash in an e-mailed note, but added:

“This is not to say that Simsek will have that much leverage to deliver on his structural reform plan. The power is moving to Erdogan and his less orthodox policy advisers.”

Erdogan favors consumption-led growth and has said high interest rates cause inflation, a stance at odds with orthodox economics. Investors have been unnerved by pressure on the central bank, which cut the top end of its rate corridor for a third month on Tuesday, to push rates down.

STRAINED EU TIES

Yildirim said he would prioritize growth by boosting production, encourage investment and job creation, and maintain fiscal discipline, in a sign of continuity with policies that fueled Turkey’s growth during the AKP’s first decade in power.

Nihat Zeybekci, a close Erdogan ally, returned as economy minister, a post he had held until last November. Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak kept his position as energy minister.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also remained in his job, but former AK Party spokesman Omer Celik became the new EU minister at a critical time in Turkey’s relations with Europe.

The two are trying to keep a deal on track which would see Turks gain visa-free travel to Europe in return for Ankara continuing to stem the flow of illegal migrants into Europe.

While the EU is desperate for the deal to succeed, it also insists that Turkey meet 72 criteria, including reining in its broad anti-terror laws. The EU and rights groups say Turkey uses the laws to stifle dissent, while Ankara says it needs sweeping legislation to fight Kurdish insurgents and Islamic State militants who have launched attacks in Turkey.

Cavusoglu warned EU aspirant Turkey could cancel a range of agreements with the EU if it failed to keep to its promises “and this is no threat or bluff”.

Erdogan see constitutional change as a guarantee against the fractious coalition politics that hampered Turkeyt in the 1990s.

His opponents, and skeptical Western allies, fear growing authoritarianism. Prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president in 2014. Opposition newspapers have been shut and journalists and academics critical of government policies sacked.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz described Erdogan’s accumulation of power on Monday as a “breathtaking departure from European values”.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Ece Toksabay)

Turkey shifts to presidential system without constitutional change

Turkey's Transportation Minister Yildirim greets members of his party during the AKP extraordinary

y Orhan Coskun and Nick Tattersall

ANKARA (Reuters) – As Turkey’s incoming prime minister prepares to name his new cabinet, there is little doubt that its primary role will be to rubber-stamp what has already become reality: a shift to a full presidential system with Tayyip Erdogan firmly in charge.

Erdogan on Sunday confirmed Binali Yildirim, a close ally for two decades and a co-founder of the ruling AK Party, as his new prime minister, ensuring government loyalty as he pursues constitutional change to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an executive presidency.

Yildirim’s appointment will stamp out any vestiges of resistance in the AKP to Erdogan’s plans, three senior party officials said, forecasting that the new cabinet, expected to be announced on Tuesday, would contain only loyalists.

“We have entered a period of a ‘de facto’ presidential system, where Erdogan’s policies will be implemented very clearly,” one of the officials said, predicting five or six ministerial changes from the existing team.

“They will lead to complete harmony between Erdogan and the cabinet … Erdogan’s decisions will be implemented without being touched,” the official said, speaking anonymously because the final decision on the appointments has not yet been made.

Erdogan and his supporters see an executive presidency – a Turkish take on the system in the United States or France – as a guarantee against the sort of fractious coalition politics that hampered Turkey’s development in the 1990s, when it was an economic backwater with little clout on the world stage.

His opponents, and skeptical Western allies, fear growing authoritarianism. Prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president in 2014. Opposition newspapers have been shut and journalists and academics critical of government policies sacked.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz criticized Erdogan’s accumulation of power in comments published on Monday, describing it as a “breathtaking departure from European values” in a nation negotiating for membership of the EU.

“We see Turkey under Erdogan on its way to being a one-man-state,” he told German newspaper Koelner Stadtanzeiger.

He said the European Parliament would not begin debating visa-free travel for Turks to Europe, a quid pro quo for Ankara’s help in curbing illegal migration, until Turkey fulfilled all the criteria including amending its sweeping anti-terrorism laws, which Erdogan has resolutely refused to do.

“It is incumbent on all of us to make clear that we cannot idly accept the monopolization of power in the hands of a single man,” Schulz said.

In a sign of the possible turbulent relations to come with Brussels, Erdogan’s economic advisor Yigit Bulut warned Ankara could suspend all of its agreements with the European Union if it failed to “keep its promises”.

MASTER MANEUVERER

Erdogan has made clear he wants to seek legitimacy for the presidential system, which will require constitutional change, via a referendum. To do that, he will need the support of at least 330 members of the 550-strong parliament, and unwavering backing from the AKP grass roots on the campaign trail.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was seen as too lackluster a supporter of the presidential system. By replacing him, Erdogan aims to unify the AKP behind him just as the nationalist opposition is embroiled in a damaging leadership row and the pro-Kurdish opposition is tainted, in the eyes of some voters, by a surge in violence in the largely Kurdish southeast.

“Now the road to changing the constitution to include a presidential system is completely open,” a second senior AKP official told Reuters.

Popular support for the presidential system is unclear, with a recent IPSOS poll putting it at just 36 percent. The ORC research firm was meanwhile cited in the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper as putting it at 58 percent.

“The one-man rule has de facto begun, even though not constitutionally,” Ozer Sencar, director of the Metropoll research firm, told Reuters.

Yildirim, who has said his main aim as prime minister will be forging a new constitution, said on Monday the new cabinet list would be prepared quickly and be presented to Erdogan, who must approve it, as soon as he is available.

Investors are most concerned about the shape of the new economic team, in particular whether Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, an anchor of confidence in overall charge of economic policy, will retain his post.

A third AKP official, close to Erdogan, said it was crucial to keep an experienced team in place during turbulent economic times but that ultimately it would be the president’s decision.

His advisor Bulut, a former TV commentator who once accused opponents of trying to kill Erdogan through telekinesis, said that economic policy in Turkey would continue to be based on manufacturing, whoever was in charge.

“If the system is solid, if it’s working well, it doesn’t matter who is running it,” he told state broadcaster TRT.

(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Paul Taylor in Brussels; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Anna Willard)

Erdogan’s ally likely new prime minister, cements his hold on government

Turkey's likely next prime minister and incoming leader of the ruling AK Party Binali Yildirim greets party members during a meeting in Ankara

By Humeyra Pamuk and Nick Tattersall

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s Transport Minister Binali Yildirim emerged on Thursday as the likely new leader of the ruling AK Party and therefore the next prime minister, cementing President Tayyip Erdogan’s hold on government as he seeks to extend his powers.

Yildirim, 60, and a close ally of Erdogan for two decades, will be the sole candidate for the AKP leadership at a special party congress on Sunday, AKP spokesman Omer Celik told a news conference after a meeting of the party’s executive board.

A co-founder with Erdogan of the AKP, Yildirim has been the driving force behind major infrastructure projects in Turkey which were one of the pillars of the party’s electoral successes during its first decade in power.

He is seen as likely to champion Erdogan’s aim of changing the constitution to create a presidential system, a move opponents say will bring growing authoritarianism, and to support the president’s determination to crush by force an insurgency by militants in the largely Kurdish southeast.

“We will make every effort by working in full harmony primarily with our founding chairman and leader and then our colleagues within all ranks of our party to fulfill the targets of our great Turkey,” Yildirim told a news conference in Ankara.

He said he would travel straight to Diyarbakir following his nomination, the main city in the southeast, to visit the site of an explosion which killed 16 people last week. The region has seen some of its worst fighting in recent months since the height of the Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s.

“I would like to say this to our nation just before I leave for Diyarbakir, where I will be sharing the pain of our citizens violently massacred there: my nation should not worry, we will remove this terror menace from Turkey’s agenda.”

PUBLIC RIFT

The AKP is electing a new leader after Ahmet Davutoglu announced earlier this month he was stepping down as head of the party and therefore as prime minister following an increasingly public rift with Erdogan.

Erdogan and his supporters see an executive presidency, akin to the system in the United States or France, as a guarantee against the fractious coalition politics that hampered the government in the 1990s. His opponents, including some skeptics within the AKP, say he is merely furthering his own ambition.

Rival candidates have been jockeying for position within the AKP, raising concern about fractures in the party. The Sozcu newspaper, fiercely critical of the AKP, printed a front-page story showing photos of Yildirim’s ship-owner son playing roulette in a casino in Singapore last month. Party officials cast it as an attempt by rivals to undermine his candidacy.

Yildirim said his nomination was the result of consultation among nearly 800 key AKP members and that the congress on Sunday was a chance to “strengthen solidarity, ties and unity”.

AKP sources have said a new cabinet could be announced as early as Monday. Investors will be watching for any changes in the economic management team, particularly whether Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, seen as an anchor of investor confidence, remains in office.

ERDOGAN’S MAN

Born in the eastern province of Erzincan in 1955, Yildirim had long been touted as a potential party leader and prime minister, his name again coming to the fore as signs of tension between Erdogan and Davutoglu became more evident.

His ties to Erdogan date back to the 1990s when Yildirim, educated in shipbuilding and marine sciences, was in charge of a high-speed ferry company in Istanbul, where Erdogan was mayor.

“Yildirim’s primary qualification for the positions of AKP leader and PM is not his ability but his servility to the president,” said Wolfango Piccoli of consultancy Teneo Intelligence, adding:

“In this regard, the overriding priority of the new PM and his cabinet will be to introduce an executive presidency.”

Yildirim was among the co-founders when Erdogan formed the AKP in 2001 and was elected as a deputy for Istanbul in November 2002 when the party won its first election. He was appointed transport, maritime and communications minister, a post which he then almost continuously held in successive governments.

Infrastructure development has been a priority for the AKP and an area which Erdogan, party leader until he was forced to renounce formal AKP ties when he became president in 2014, always emphasized at election rallies, regarding it as a powerful vote winner.

Turkey has doubled the number of airports to more than 50, constructed high-speed train lines and built more than 17,000 km (10,500 miles) of highway during Yildirim’s time as minister. He has also overseen some of Erdogan’s pet projects, including an underground train tunnel linking the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, a third suspension bridge across the Bosphorus and a new Istanbul airport, billed to be one of the world’s biggest.

A father of three, he is religiously conservative, describing in 2013 how he rejected the opportunity to attend one of the country’s most prestigious universities after seeing male and female students sitting together in its gardens.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler; Writing by Nick Tattersall, editing by Peter Millership)

China Now World’s Largest Economy

For the first time since Ulysses S. Grant was president, the United States is no longer the largest economy in the world.

The United States slipped to number 2 in the latest numbers released by the International Monetary Fund on the world economic situation.  The U.S. fell to $17.4 trillion in “real economic output” while China climbed to $17.6 trillion.

The report says that China accounts for 16.5% of the world economy while the U.S. now accounts for 16.3%.

The report is causing massive geopolitical ripples.  The decline of a country in terms of economic dominance is usually closely followed by a decline of power and importance on the world stage.

The decline of U.S. economic power could mean the days of the U.S. being a superpower are ending.